HIT REFRESH: A Breath of Latvian Fresh Air Enlivens Tennis

Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)


You’re tired of the same old faces.

“Serena, you’re fab, but how about someone new?” you sigh.

Well, say hello to Jelena Ostapenko.

You’ve had it: “The heck with all those stone-faced, ‘nothing-but-the-facts’ players who never smile and rarely wince. How soul-deadening can you get?”

Well, how do you do, Ms. Ostapenko!

You say you know a thing or two about tennis.

Sure – but did you pick Ostapenko to reach the French Open final? Well, neither did anyone else in the known universe.

You say this world is getting a tad nuts, you could use a double-scoop-of-vanilla feel-good story. Well, guess who just got to her first Slam final on her 20th birthday?

Jelena Ostapenko was primarily trained by her mom and dad. But she was far from a dream child. She spent seven years learning the graces of ballroom dancing. Samba was her fave, but grace wasn’t always her thing.

Sure, today Ostapenko is the talk of this considerable town, but truth be told, she had quite the ‘tude. Last year, in a match against Naomi Broady in New Zealand, the Brit asked for Ostapenko to be disqualified after her racket flew from her hands and hit a ball kid. Was it on purpose or by accident? Let the debate begin. Then France’s Kristina Mladenovic and others took to Twitter to criticize Ostapenko. It wasn’t pretty.

At a Wimbledon warm-up, Jelena was caught on camera complaining about how she didn’t even want to play the “stupid” tournament. Oh, well, youth does have its rough edges.

But, today we saw one of the glorious upsides of youth: fearlessness. In our game, there’s nothing quite as renewing as seeing a fresh talent stand tall and swing free. “The world is my oyster” – nothing to lose, blast and laugh.

Young Monica Seles once came out on this very same court and tossed flowers. Her foe, the battle-weary veteran Zina Garrison, wasn’t amused. Before the weight of the world crashed down on her, teen Steffi Graf said she had a perfect life. Carefree Jennifer Capriati so captured our imagination that some of the tournaments she played in were called the Virginia Slims of Capriati.

Ostapenko is far from a can’t-miss prodigy. Goodness, the Latvian has never even won a WTA tournament. Her No. 47 ranking is modest. And she’s a tad less well-known than a lady named Serena.

Still, her 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3 victory over fellow birthday girl Timea Bacsinszky drew rave reviews. “She’s risky, aggressive and fun,” said Nick McCarvel. “I’m stunned – the girl certainly can play, both sides, all the time,” said Matt Cronin.

Bacsinszky herself said, “Another forehand on the line, give me a break…She doesn’t measure what she’s doing…She probably doesn’t care. She’s just hitting…as hard as she can down the line from nowhere…I mean, who tries that? Seriously? I mean, it’s like 1 out of 10. But she does it. So we’ll see if she does it at 28 years old.”

More than anything, Jelena is open and transparent – a delight to watch. On occasion she’ll sit on a courtside flower bed, but she doesn’t sit on her emotions. She slaps her thigh. She flails her arms. She pounds the ball into the clay in frustration. Then she folds her arms in protest. She pouts. And, just to be conventional, hollers, “C’mon!”

This is pretty decent off-Broadway theater. In Charleston Mary Carillo noted, “This kid gives you so many looks, and anyone who’s owned a teenager knows many of them.”

Now, thanks to her fearless, don’t-worry-about-Plan-B power game, she will take on the considerable Simona Halep in Saturday’s final. Halep, who beat Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in the semis, will be the strong favorite. How strong? “I will bet everything I have on Simona,” said Pliskova. And Halep, who fell to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 French Open final, will become No. 1 if she wins.

As for Ostapenko, she is the youngest Slam finalist in eight years and has made the greatest out-of-nowhere run to a Slam final since the much-hyped Venus Williams reached the 1997 US Open final.

Sorry, 2013 Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli, this really is the greatest Cinderella tale in recent memory. And it would be something else if she prevailed at the ball on Saturday. Even Serena would probably be happy. After all, there’s nothing like a little Latvian fresh air to liven up a sport.


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